Age Discrimination in Church-Run Schools

Court rules that a school’s rights were not violated in an investigation of discrimination.

Church Law and Tax 1991-07-01 Recent Developments

Freedom of Religion

A Wisconsin state appeals court ruled that a church school’s constitutional rights were not violated when a state equal rights agency conducted a hearing on the age discrimination complaint of a former teacher. The teacher’s contract was not renewed following 16 years of service as the school’s third grade teacher. She was 56 years of age at the time of the school’s decision not to renew her contract. She filed a complaint with a state equal rights agency, alleging that the school’s decision was based on age and therefore violated state law. The school denied that age was the reason for its decision and cited problems with her classroom management, her professionalism, and her maintenance of a “prayerful environment.” A state investigator concluded that there was “probable cause” to believe age discrimination existed. This conclusion was based on an excellent evaluation that the teacher had received for the previous year, and the school’s record of systematically terminating the contracts of three out of four teachers who had many years of teaching experience at the school and were at the top of their pay scale. A hearing was scheduled to determine whether or not the school’s decision was based on age. The school filed a lawsuit alleging that a hearing would violate its constitutional right to religious freedom. A state appeals court rejected the school’s argument. It relied upon a 1986 decision of the United States Supreme Court holding that a state agency “violates no constitutional rights by merely investigating the circumstances of [an employee’s] discharge in this case, if only to ascertain whether the ascribed religious-based reason was in fact the reason for the discharge.” The court also relied upon other Supreme Court decisions permitting civil courts to resolve disputes involving religious organizations on the basis of “neutral principles of law.” The court concluded that the state fair employment law (which banned age discrimination) was a neutral principle of law. The court emphasized that the intrusion into the school’s religious beliefs “is minimal and is not an attempt for interfere with religious schools.” The court emphasized that “the school is still free to discharge employees for religious reasons. The school will prevail in the [state] investigation if [the former teacher] cannot prove that the religious-based reason given for her discharge was only a pretext for age discrimination. The burden of proof remains with [her].” In rejecting the school’s claim that the first amendment gives religious groups a constitutional right to “autonomy,” the court observed: “The [first amendment] guarantees religious rights to every citizen and not merely to religious institutions or their officers. We would be limiting the [first amendment] rights of individuals if we interpreted the [first amendment] as giving religious groups a right to autonomy that exempted them from judicial scrutiny …. If we accepted the school’s autonomy argument, the court would be awarding the religious employer a talisman to protect it from all discrimination lawsuits. This we cannot allow.” Sacred Heart School Board v. Labor & Industry Review Commission, 460 N.W.2d 430 (Wis. App. 1990).

See also Church property, St. Bartholomew’s Church v. City of New York, 914 F.2d 348 (2nd Cir. 1990).

Termination of Employees

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